In the early hours of Tuesday morning, suspected Al-Shabaab militants entered a tented labourers’ camp in a quarry 10 kilometres from Mandera, singling out 36 non-Muslims for execution at point-blank range.
At least two men were beheaded, according to witnesses.
The quarry killings followed in the wake of a similarly barbaric attack in the same area two weeks earlier, in which 28 non-Muslim bus passengers — mostly schoolteachers returning to Nairobi for the holidays — lost their lives.
The quarry attack made a mockery of Deputy President William Ruto’s claim that the Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) had eliminated more than 100 militants involved in the first massacre.
But the government’s ineptitude in Kenya’s lawless and economically desolate north-eastern region is nothing new, with the cancer of corruption remaining one of the greatest impediments to security.
UNDERMANNED POLICE BRANCHES
The rampant smuggling of sugar across the porous border, which has the political backing of wealthy politicians, is a testament to this national failure.
Though Kenya has four police branches as well as the General Service Unit (GSU) and KDF stationed along the 700-kilometre frontier, most units are immobile and undermanned.
Nor does the KDF have the capacity to consistently maintain unmanned aerial vehicles in the air to spot militants and smugglers crossing the border.
“Eighty per cent of the time you’ll get through,” a former senior Kenyan intelligence officer told me.
Corruption among the border security forces has the dual effect of weakening Kenya’s overall ability to prevent militants from entering the country, as well as strengthening Al-Shabaab’s finances.
Charcoal exported through Kismayo, largely to Gulf countries, constituted the principal source of Al-Shabaab revenue before the KDF seized the port in September 2012.
Yet the lesser-known trade is the smuggling of processed sugar from Somalia into Kenya, a consequence of the Kenyan government’s exorbitant tariffs on sugar imports aimed at propping up a flagging domestic industry.
AL-SHABAAB'S REVENUE SOURCE
Information provided to me by a regional intelligence source, dating to early 2011 — before Al-Shabaab was driven out of Kismayo by the KDF — depicted a sophisticated sugar-smuggling network with links to the Kenyan political elite.
Through cross-border cooperation with Al-Shabaab-linked brokers in Dhobley, Somalia, the smuggled sugar crossed the border at Liboi and passed through the Dadaab refugee camps before making its way to the regional hub of Garissa.
There it was stored in several depots — two of which are possibly owned by an Al-Shabaab affiliate — before being transported to wholesale markets in Nairobi.
In 2011, the UN Monitoring Group on Somalia estimated that Al-Shabaab generated as much as $800,000 (Sh72 million) from import taxes on sugar.
Although Al-Shabaab’s defeats in Lower Juba in 2012 mean the group no longer controls the illicit trade, the smuggling networks that operate it are still active (the intelligence source speculated that the KDF now had “tentacles” in the business, having taken over control of the Dhobley-Kismayo road from Al-Shabaab).
Kenyan sugar prices in the first quarter of 2014 fell from an average of $43 (Sh3,870) to $36 (Sh3,240) per 50kg sack due to illegal imports, Kenya Sugar Board CEO Rosemary Mkok told South Africa’s Financial Mail newspaper in May.
The black market trade is so entrenched that domestic sugar processors routinely import cheaper sugar and repackage it under their own brand. Mohamed Mohamud Hassan is a former smuggler living in Dadaab’s Ifo camp.